Saturday, November 18, 2017

3 Masses and a Home Visit

Many times I will get asked what I do 'the rest of the week.'  I imagine there are some Catholics who have little clue what their pastor does.  It is a hard question to answer because one of the things I have found about priesthood is that it is unpredictable.  Many times, I have a rough idea in my head what will happen, but the particulars and order vary.  Yesterday, 11/17, was a rare day.  I had a schedule and nothing moved it.  Going through my schedule would be boring, so hitting the four highlights of the day might give you an insight, not merely into my life, but the life of many pastors.  Hopefully, it might hit on a few other points as well.

8:15 Morning Mass in the Parish

Mass is the anchor of my day.  Although the ritual is the same ( I am very by the book), they are unique as fingerprints.  Sometimes a congregation dictates much of the homily for me.  The Feast of St Elizabeth of Hungary and its proper readings afforded me a lot of room to custom fit a challenging homily for what group I am preaching to.  In this case, it was 20 or so older parishioners and the 200 or so school students and staff.  Being able to hold up such a splendid role model as St. Elizabeth who used her great wealth to serve the needs of the poorest and sickest of her kingdom, using her time and energy nurturing a deep relationship with God, and her willingness to give completely of herself were the heart of the homily.

I look at this group and see so many young men and women whose vocations are yet unknown to them.  I see a group who our Church needs to invest themselves in their faith, not holding out for a minimum effort or waiting for someone else to pick up the ball.  I see a group our parish needs to invest heavily in. They need to know about the heroes.  They need to be prodded to such heroism.  Heck, there isn't a person in that room, young or old, that doesn't need that call to excellence.  We need more St. Elizabeths. And more St Martins and St Alberts, and.... Many more.

The words that come out of my mouth challenge me as well. Perhaps knowing I am an unfinished product, knowing that my relationship with Christ and His Church still needs growth, and that my own holiness lacks at times drives me the way I want to drive others. I often look out at the parishioners gathered and think the same thing that I think many parents do when they look at their children: I am responsible before God for these people.  I better be using the gifts I am given to lead them towards Christ.

10:15 Mass at a Local Care Facility

I said before that each Mass is as unique as a fingerprint.  Even though I use the same Mass reading and prayers, I am now in front of about 15 elderly people.  Having worked with the elderly for so long, I know they are in a somewhat different place than the young faces I just left.  For one, most of them are in self contained community.  They see the same people day in and day out.  They are also in the waning years of life.  Questions of what might have been and evaluation of their lives are in the forefront of their minds, especially as death draws near.

That said, the same principles are in play.  The challenges the have towards kindness and patience are a daily thing.  Having sat down for an untold amount of hours in facilities like these, in their homes, and  by their hospital beds, I know the questions they have, the joys they have, the fears they have, and the doubts they have.  The call to strive for holiness becomes more needed as they enter that time of life where we prepare for what happens after we die.  To wisely use what time is gifted us helps to hold out hope.

As I wander into my 50's, I am aware that more than half my life is done and about half of my priestly ministry is done.  As I drove home, I thought about what might have changed not just in my lives, but in the lives of all I have ministered to had I stuck to my guns 25 years ago and refused to re-enter the seminary.  I am sure God would have provided for these people somehow...maybe.  I know that the joy I feel now in my call would not be here.  It occurs to me as I drive home that I am thankful and very blessed to be where I am now.

1:15 Mass at the Boonville Correctional Center

My third Mass of the day happens at the local minimum security prison in our town.  I had done limited prison ministry before in my last assignment.  I say Mass once a month out there.  As I am driving there, I got to thinking that there is no reason I cannot do this twice a month.  My congregation there is about 7 residents.  I hear confessions before.  There, we do the following Sunday Mass.  So the Parable of the Talents is in play.  It would be easy to brush over it and give some pablum.  However these seven men don't need pablum.  Neither do I.

The gist is that God gives us a great wealth in out freedom, our abilities, and our other gifts from Him.  These gifts are not entitlements, but investments for which are held accountable.  Jesus tells this parable to His those who say they believe. The beauty is that if we have buried out talents by misusing them or burying them, there is still a chance here and now to right that ship through God's grace.  Sooner of later, though, the master comes home, and we are held accountable.

Not one of those men in that chapel are a finished product, no more than those young faces I saw in the first mass or the older faces I saw in the second Mass. I am not a finished product.  Holding out hope that we might well learn how to master our use of the talents is with us till we die.  My job, in that prison chapel, was to hold on the certainty of hope and that the love of God can turn us around from what we have previously done.

6:15 Home Visit

My last event of the day is a home visit to a family in the parish.  It wasn't about going over their giving, their stewardship, or their obligations. It was a time to just get an opportunity to get to know my flock.  The couple and their three children provided good food, good conversation and a delightful time.   We talked about family, God, music, sports, the parish and school, and just relaxed.  Being a thousand miles from my own family sucks a lot of the time.  It can be isolating.  However, these home visits remind me of something my oldest sister told me last year, "Bill, We (my siblings) understood a long time ago that your pairsh is your family.  We respect that."

I hear so many times that a fear young men have about being a priest is that they will be lonely.  I figure a priest is lonely so many times because he doesn't engage.  Over the years I have made close friends with former parishioners.  I have had open doors in many places.  Earlier this week, I stopped by a cemetery in my home parish and walked through tombstones with the names of people who opened their homes and lives to me over the years.  I remembered meals, laughs, tears, long discussions, and every other thing hat goes with family life.  More than a few I buried in that cemetery.

They were there for me, I was there for them.

As we look at a shrinking clergy, I suppose we can find ways of doing things, but let's be honest, it not going to be the same.  It is not about goods and services being rendered.  Sure, a good deacon or lay person can do communion services at the nursing home or prison.  In many places, that is the only choice.  But the dynamic is different.

It is days like this that remind me that I am called father for a reason.  It is constant reminder of the role I play in this parish.  Like in a family, I can delegate the care of the kids to others, but do it enough and the kids start to wonder if you love them. The most dominant image given in the Scriptures to describe God and His people is that of marriage and family.  It can't be faked.

I was in that 8:15 Mass because I am father of the parish and my kids were there..
I was in that 10:15 Mass because I am father of the parish and my elders were there.
I was in that 1:15 Mass because I am father of the parish and my brothers were there.
I was in that home at 6:15 because I am father of the parish and part of  my family was there.

We don't need less men stepping in the role of priests.  We need more.  This isn't to denigrate the dedicated ministry of deacons and religious and lay people.  Not at all.  But it isn't interchangeable.  Many families don't have dad around and no matter how great the mom is, dad is needed.  Same for our parishes.  We can have lay people and deacons fill in as administrators.  Many of them do a great job.  But it is not the same.  Our society suffers because of so many fatherless too do many parishes.

It is time young men to step up and be courageous.  It's time to be a man and surrender your desires for something far greater.  If one is called to marriage, then quit playing around.  If one is called to priesthood, quit dodging and weaving.  One day, I will be gone.  It happens.  I want to make sure that when that day comes, there is someone there to take care of my family.      

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Stop Hitting Yourself: A Few Ideas on How Parishes and Dioceses Can Turn Things Around

When I was a kid, one of the many, many ways my brothers and sisters would torture each other was by grabbing each other by the wrist and using their own hand to hit them with, we would say, “Stop hitting yourself!”  We thought it was riot.  Mom and dad did not share in our assessment.  In it, though, is a little life lesson. Sometimes, we hurt ourselves.  Sometimes we inflict our own wounds.  Many of those wounds come as a matter of stupidity (as my trips to the ER and resulting stitches will bear witness to) or recklessness (also involving stitches, and casts).   Sometimes in fear or depression we can inflict further wounds.  Sometimes the self-inflicted wounds come as a result of poor stewardship of our health.  Many times, we can be our own worst enemies.

               What is true for individuals is many times true for institutions.  It makes sense as institutions are made up of human beings.  Even when that institution has a divine helper, its human element can inflict grave harm on itself.

               However, the opposite can also be said.  Inasmuch as we inflict harm on ourselves, we can also do great good for ourselves.  Being wise and prudent bears great benefit.  Being good stewards of our health bears great fruit.  Taking the time to learn, to grow stronger physically and otherwise, to use the benefit of discipline, and investing ourselves in life-giving relationships all can bear positive results.

               Which course we follow, though, is up to us as individuals and collectively as institutions.  Whether we thrive or decline is largely up to whether we are willing to do the things to thrive.  It is also determined by how well we learn the lessons from our self-inflicted wounds.

Where we are
               Our diocese is doing what many dioceses are doing in this country.  We are gathering together to try and map out where we go as the number of priests decline.  This has been a long time coming.  The influx of borrowed international priests has afforded us the opportunity to kick this can down the road.  Now, though, there is no more road. 

               I posit that the decline in the numbers of priests is a symptom of the disease and not the disease itself.  This number corresponds with other numbers: Mass attendance, religious sisters and brothers, number of marriages, children in Catholic schools, and now the number of parishes as a whole. According to the figures released by CARA (Center for the Applied Research in the Apostolate), between 2000 and 2016, the number of priests dropped by 8500.  That means we lose 530 or so priests every year.  About 7200 new priests replaced them.  That deficit will increase as the Baby Boomer generation of priests, the largest group numerically, starts to retire. The influx of ordinations to replace those retiring will not keep up with the departures.

               In the same time period, dioceses in the United States have closed a net total of 2003 parishes.  There are now 17,233 parishes in the USA.  Although the Catholic population has risen by 3.2 million in the same time period, only 22% on average go to Mass regularly.  In that same time period, a net of 1527 Catholic parochial schools were closed.  This trend will continue.  In fact, just about all numbers, save Permanent Deacons and Lay leadership, are trending down, in some cases steeply down.  Bishops and dioceses are left to wrestle with how to shepherd in such circumstances.

               So are we on a sinking ship?  I don’t think so.  There is no self-inflicted wound that cannot be undone.  We have to learn to quit hitting ourselves. We have to learn from our mistakes and change course.
Changing Course

               Changing course isn’t so much going to uncharted waters, but returning to the shipping lanes from which we departed.  It isn’t as if the Gospel has been found wanting.  It may have been dismissed as inconvenient or difficult, but it is not wanting.

               The answer is simple: learn the truth, preach the truth, live the truth, and provide for the future.  It sounds simple, but it will be difficult.  It will require us to right the ship. It will take us admitting the path we took didn’t work.  It will require us to stop making the same mistakes.  It will require us to stop hitting ourselves.

1.      Learn the Truth.  It is the responsibility of every individual to take ownership of their faith.  The Catholic faith has content.  We call it the Deposit of Faith. It is not a buffet.  I know many catechetical tools have fallen far short in passing on the faith, treating the content of faith as if it were all a matter of opinion or as a lifeless body of facts.  The truth is to lead us to a relationship with God and His Church.
2.      Preach the truth.  The Christian message is not one that lies dormant.  It is by its nature to be proclaimed.  Having found the truth, we have a responsibility to proclaim the truth.  Given that only 22% of Catholics see Mass as necessary, we have a lot of proclaiming of the truth to do.   Given that there are 30.1 million that call themselves former Catholics, we have a lot of proclaiming to do.  Many left because of poor catechesis before, here is our chance to right the ship.
3.      Live the truth.  We can’t put our faith and God into a compartment separate from everything else in our lives.  The truth, because it is based in God’s self-revelation to us BECAUSE He wants a relationship with us and how we model our faith through our interactions with others matters.  We cannot preach one way and then live another.  That we have done that repeatedly within the Church has been the ultimate self-inflicted wound that, like a cornucopia from hell, has brought much harm.  Allowing others to see how our relationship with God transforms us, especially in that grace given through the Eucharist, makes the strongest compelling case for people to come home or find a home with us.
4.      Provide for the Future.  This falls in three parts.  First, we have to make sure we keep up the parish structures we have; not to just maintain the status quo, but plan for and expect growth.  The lower our expectations, the lower our results.  The higher our hopes, the higher the results.  Our parishes, even in their physical structures and programs, must plan for a bright future. Second, we must be willing to invest in that future with our time, energy, and resources.    We have to put our time, energy, and money where our hopes and mouth are.  Third, we MUST get serious about promoting, nurturing, and sustaining vocations.  We need more priests.  Many more priests.  We need more religious sisters and brothers engaged in the work of the Church.  We need more sound and holy marriages which are THE incubators of all vocations.  The health of the family will determine the health of every other structure in our parishes and dioceses!
We can do this!  I have no doubt about that!  With God’s grace and our obedience to God’s grace, we can do this!

Monday, November 6, 2017

You're Not In My Tribe..

It is a tale as old as human history.  Civilizations rise and fall on this.  Your land cannot be your land and my land at the same time.  Countries conquer their neighbors.  It doesn't matter what name you which to attach to the invader: Babylonians, Greeks, Persians, Romans, Inca, Sioux, British, Russians....that lands are taken from those not of my tribe is a part of history.  Sometimes those lands and kingdoms stay put for a while.  Sometimes they fall quickly.  Much of what determines that is the cohesiveness of those living in that land.  If they are internally cohesive, it will be hard to conquer them.  If they are at each other throats, they are ripe to be conquered.  I am afraid my country, the United States, is falling into the latter category.

Growing up, I was taught in school that the US was a melting pot of various cultures who were learning  to live side by side.  We can argue the extent of that, but the goal was for us to bring the richness of our various cultures and live in harmony.  Some groups suffered greatly as there contribution was not welcome.  Sometimes that rejected contribution is religious (Catholics go home, No Jews here) sometimes it is racial (Jim Crow Laws, slavery, Trail of Tears), and so forth.  The goal, though, was to find a way that each group could live in peace and be given opportunity.

An Experiment Failed ?
That attempt is seemingly long gone.  Now the country is breaking into tribes.  Yesterday, a young man walked into a church in Texas and killed 20+ people.  The internet erupted into a cacophony of accusation.  All of the accusations fit into one category: the shooter was a member of your tribe, not mine.  The shooter was accused of being a right-wing, religious zealot, Trump supporting, gun nut.  He was accused of being a left wing, antifa, atheist, liberal.  He was accused of being Muslim, Christian, and atheist.  In other words, we know nothing of his motivation, but it couldn't be because he belonged to my tribe.  Every tragedy...Las Vegas, New York City, and now a reason to bolster the credibility of my tribe and to destroy the credibility of your tribe.

Whatever adjectives we can hold on this guy, whatever tribe he happened to belong to, will now become fodder for slapping labels on the entirety of the tribe.  It turns out the guy was atheist.  Does this mean every atheist is a potential church terrorist?  He was former military.  Does this make every former military, even those dishonorably discharged, potential killers?  I am sure the more we find out, the more the need to castigate whatever tribes this guy belonged to will only heighten.

Now, I know some atheist.  I don't think a one of them is hostile at all, let alone hostile enough to open fire in a church.  I know many former military.  Again, I  can't see most of them being a danger to anybody.  All A are not B.  I am not an atheist nor former military, by the society's standards, I am not part of their tribes.  I suppose I should be suspicious then, huh?  No.

Focus, Focus, Focus

I have heard that in real estate, the 3 most important factors, are location, location, location. I posit when it comes to living with each other in peace, the 3 most important factors are focus, focus, focus.Where our focus is will determine what we see and consequently how we act.  What we choose to focus on when we look at people not like me will determine how peaceably I live with others.

I will admit that there are some world views that are inherently divisive.  Racial Supremacy is a good example of this.  If I look at another and see as as lesser because of the amount of melanin (or lack thereof), then I am focusing on what separates.  I can name any human endeavor: religion, politics, culture, education, socioeconomic class, and a hundred other endeavors and see the same kind of supremacy at work.  Good heavens, we have people beating up others you belong to a tribe that roots for a different team than my tribe does.

However, if we are honest, there are more things that unite us than divide us.  Our base humanity is the same.  We all desire for happiness.  We all want love, even if we don't fully understand what that means.  We all want security and the ability to feel safe.  We all want the ability to succeed and flourish. When a person doesn't want this, we usually come to the conclusion that something is wrong.

The quickest way to single out a group for destruction is to rip away that similarity between us.  If I can strip away your humanity, consign you to the 'them', then I can justify any violence.  This is why the pro-abortion groups simply cannot recognize the humanity of the infant in the womb.  This is why slave owners must dehumanize those they wish to own.  This is why pornography deadens us to seeing the dignity of the person.  This is why racists need those of the other race to be lesser humans than they.  This is why religious persecutions need to consign those not of their faith as infidels or pagans unworthy of life.

Let's Be Honest

Those who choose hate will hijack any and all institutions to spread their hate.  Whether it is ISIS or Westboro Baptist Church or any variation of any other faith, religions are constantly hijacked to promote hate.  Those who hate will accuse other faiths of being exactly who they are.    How about politics?  My goodness, that has become a scorched earth free for all!  American politics is a toxic mix of loathing and fear.  We are constantly coached to view others as dangerous to my happiness.  Again, look at how quickly people wanted to assign affiliations to the gunman in Las Vegas or Texas.

What is the result?  Honestly, every time someone represents their tribe in such a way, they discredit the tribe.  They show their tribe to built on hate and fear.  Some of those tribes are built on hate and fear, but many are not.  For those who are not, their members who hate those not of their group wound the reputation of their group.

As  a Catholic priest, it drives me to the sadness when I see a fellow catholic employ such tactics.  Our particular faith sees the world as those in the Body of Christ and those called into the Body of Christ.  Nowhere does Christ tell us to do conversion at the tip of the sword.  Nowhere does Christ tell us persecute those who are not Christian.  In fact, it is damnably hard to convert anyone when I hate them and they know it!  Even the methodology of conversion, a call shown by our willingness to love those different than ourselves, was the calling card of the early Church.  Oftentimes, that willingness took on heroic levels.

As those who do not convert?  I am not to persecute them.  If they persecute me, I am to stand my ground and refuse to return violence for violence. I am to see what binds as one instead of looking for reasons to persecute.  I am well aware that many Catholics fall into this group.  We all stand before God in the end.  I will let God make the call there.  Since He has already told us what He expects (see Sermon of the Mount in Mathew or farewell Discourse in Gospel of John), we cannot say we were not warned. 

Our Choice

Regardless of the multitude of differences we might have, we have a fundamental choice.  We can either be forces to unite or divide.  We can either hijack whatever institution we want to further our hate, or we use those same institutions to unite.  I am a Catholic.  Would I like all to be Catholic?  Of course.   Do I have a right to persecute you or dismiss you is you should choose not to?  Absolutely not!  To do so would go against the very heart of what it means to be Catholic.

We can either appropriate false qualities to various differences (like someone being inherently inferior because of skin color) or we can be honest.  We can either work to a base common good that does allow for the various differences or we can wipe out those not of my tribe.  If we choose division, if we choose to persecute and destroy those not of my tribe, then what happened in las Vegas, of New York, or Texas, of Nice, or Paris, or London, or Bagdad, or Nigeria, or... will continue on.  I am willing to bet this: the shooter in Texas did view those he went to kill as not belonging to his tribe and hence disposable.  We can either learn the lessons of the hell tribalism wrought, or  we can careen further down the road to hell.

That is up to us.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

A Tale of Two False Gods

This is a variation of the homily I gave this weekend.

So, Fr. no one on earth your father.  Says so right there in the Gospel today.  Certainly many other Christians would say that calling a priest a father is just proof of our devilish nature here in the Catholic Church.  I guess, then, the male parental units are going to have to find something else to be called as father, dad, papa, pops, and all are names whose etymology inevitably leads back to some form of father.  While we are at it, we better find a new name for those who instruct children.  We can't go around calling people a teacher.  While we are at it, we have to throw mister and all variations out as they are variations of master.  After all, this passage must be a 1st century list of trigger words and microagressions!  Or maybe not.

To understand this passage, you must put it back into its passage from Matthew.  What Jesus is talking about is far greater than what we call people?

God the Enabler

Let's look, for a moment, at the 1st reading from the prophet Malachi.  Malachi is prophesying in the time immediate to the return of the exiles from the Babylonian captivity.  Jerusalem is in shambles and the temple is as well.  Rebuilding is hard work.  However, the priests have facilitated a spiritual sloth among the people. It is to the priest that God speaks.  The priests have allowed the people to bring sickly and blind animals to make their sin/peace offerings.  The people are withholding the thanksgiving sacrifice or giving mere crumbs.  They suffer.  The priests have allowed the people to deaden the relationship with God.  Their dead relationship is producing the only crop it is capable of producing. The priest are permissive enablers and are presenting God as a permissive enabler.  Instead of exposing the people to the love of a merciful and just God; they hide Him behind a  weak and permissive idol.  They poison the well from Israel was to drink.

God the Hater of Man
Let's jump to the Gospel.  Jesus is once again coming down on the scribes and Pharisees.  They look down their noses at the riff raff.  They use the Law of Moses as a weapon to keep these people in line.  Their God is an angry God is waiting for you botch it up.  The empty the law of mercy and love.  Their God is a God to be appeased with minute obedience.  They, too, have created an angry place of the true God.  They, too, poison the well from which the Jews were to drink.

In either case, the religious authorities in question have usurped the role of God and made a god that looks just like them.  They have created an authority independent of God which serves their own ends.  In this passage, Jesus isn't being a word Nazi...He is telling us, especially us who have shepherding roles, exactly what He expects of us. Our authority as those who minister in Christ's name is delegated from God, not something we fashion and shape for ourselves.  For when we do, we mislead those placed in out care.

Teachers with Authority: Clergy

Who has this authority?  Within the Church, there are two groups of mention.  The first is obvious: the clergy.  As a pastor, I have no authority independent of my bishop, who has no authority independent of the Church who has no authority independent of Jesus Christ.  How Jesus reveals the Father and His will is the final say.  I am obligated to preach in this way AND act in this way as well.  The qualities of  Christ are to become my own.  I cannot cobble together an alternate version that is more palatable.  I am not to form a Christ more to the liking to my dispositions. No priest, nor bishop, nor Pope has the authority to teach or act in a way that obscures the Gospel or overturns it. They are the keepers of the keys to be sure...but those keys only go to one door.  For me or any other cleric to do otherwise, would be to carve a false idol and place it to be worshiped.  For me or any other cleric to do so would be to poison the well at which the flock is to drink.  It is for this reason that the Scriptures tell us that the harshest judge will fall on the shepherds.

Teachers with Authority: Parents
However, I did say two groups, no?  That second group is the parents...especially you, dad!  When you had your child baptized you promised God and the Church that you would be worthy guardians of the light of Christ entrusted to you.  You agreed to be the first and best teachers of the ways of the faith.  No more than I or any other cleric can present a false god, be it an angry or permissive god,  can you as parents.  You, too, are obligated to make sure the well from which your flock, known as your family, drinks, is kept free from the poison of sin.  No more than I or any cleric can you produce a false idol in place of God. As your children will follow your definition  of God and faith long before they follow mine or any other cleric, the impetus is on you.  Together, as partners,  we try and make authentic disciples of Jesus Christ who will become the leaders we need.  To do this, they must drink from unpolluted waters.

Not My Will...

I will be honest with you.  In my return to the Catholic faith, the main predication was that I did not want a God in my image and likeness.  I am all too aware of how limited I am.  I am too aware of my sinfulness and frailties.  I am aware that my love, patience, and faith all fall short.  The God presented us by Christ and in the Scriptures is a God who does love us and wants what is good for us, even when we don't want what is good for us.  He allows us to choose to love or not love.  This is why when we choose not to love, it is sin. When we set up an idol and call it god...we court disaster for ourselves and for others.

There is an additional problem when we poison the well.  It truncates people's ability to face the horror that comes with life.  The morning this post was written, a gunman walked into a small Baptist Church in Texas and killed well over 20 people.  What are we to think of God?  Was angry God punishing this crowd?  Was permissive God too weak to stop it?  If we have these dysfunctional images of God, we will come to these conclusions.  Truth is that God will do what He always does, come in and scoop us out of the wreckage left by other people's sinfulness and wrath.  It is the danger of free will.  the same free will by which we are loving and heroic is the same free will by which we are dangerous and destructive.  The same free will that can love God is the same free will that can form idols.

So many problems we have in our churches come from these false idols and poisoned wells.  Be wary of the purveyors of such idolatry.  Beware of the cleric who present a just God without mercy, or a merciful God who is unjust.  Mercy and justice cannot exist without each other.  The priest of Malachi's time present a unjust god, the scribes and pharisees presented a merciless god.  As those entrusted with authority, we must avoid these false idols...both in words we say and in the actions we do.     

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

The Things That Most Catholics Think the Church Quit Teaching....but Really Didn't

In the last few days I have had, on more than few occasions, conversations about the knowledge most Catholics have about their Catholic faith and , more to the point, the lack thereof. On the one hand, I am grateful that many Catholics are starting to wake up to the awareness that there is much they do not know.  On the other hand, I want to smack my head on brick walls.  Why?  It represents a resounding failure on the educational apparatus of the Church.

I do not blame these people for their lack of knowledge.  I do not blame their teachers. I do blame, however, those who did know better but chose a different path.  I blame those who purposely mislead, either out of fear or rebellion.

In talking with my parochial school principal, we have been looking at overhauling the religion program.  The impression many have is that most programs are squishy.  That is an accurate assessment.  Many good religion teachers, in both PSR/CCD programs and in Catholic Schools, have presumed that the squishy programs represented a change in Church teaching and so they taught it.  They acted in good faith.

What makes these programs squishy?  The biggest single factor is that we treat objective truth as a matter of subjective opinion.  We treat religion in a different way that we do other subjects.  We do not ask students how they feel about the truth of a math or science problem.  We don't ask them how they feel about grammar structures, spelling, and other school subjects.  Even in sports, we don't ask how a player feels about a rule, a play, a position, or the way the game is played.  However, we do constantly ask them to feel something about the truths of religion as if the truth of a religious principle resides in how I feel about it.  This mimics the society as a whole which treats all moral issues as validated by one's subjective emotional state.  If we mimic the society around us, why commit to faith when it is so fluid?  Why not commit to sports and science which have definitive rules?

In the fallout, many well meaning Catholics really do believe the Church has dropped teachings.  Their religion class never brought it up.   The 'be nice' drivel that passes for preaching in most parishes doesn't touch on these teachings.  Some remember sisters, priests, and other teachers embracing the 'spirit of Vatican II' and telling people that we didn't teach thus and so anymore.  These people lied.  They have done grave damage.

But, let's set the the record straight on some things here today; things that we taught before 1965 and STILL teach long after 1965.

1) Sin and Mortal Sin still exist.  Sin didn't morph into 'making mistakes'.  Personal sin didn't disappear and morph into 'corporate or social sin.'   In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, sections 1846-1876, the issue of sin, both venial and mortal, are defined  in union with the constant teaching of the Church.  Since sin didn't evaporate into the ether, neither did the necessity to address their effect and need for healing.  Being in a state of mortal sin will still send you to hell.  Dismiss that at your own risk.  Being in a state of mortal sin still excludes a person from the reception of the Eucharist until Confession has happened.  Receiving the Eucharist is a state of mortal sin is, itself, a mortal sin.  We have never taught that one has a right to the Eucharist in any old state.  Never.  In fact, if we did, that would point to a belief that the bread and wine must still be just bread and wine.  We do not believe this either.

2) Sunday mass/ Holy Day Masses are NOT optional.  A Catholic in good standing, exempting those who are ill or taking care of someone who is ill, are obliged to worship God in Mass on every Sunday and Holy Day.  That never changed.  When one chooses to opt out of Mass in favor of sleeping in, sports, shopping, or anything in this vein, one has found a god they think is more worthy of their time than the God.   That any Catholic would believe their faith life is just fine without Mass is delusional.  Willfully missing mass is starving oneself to death spiritually.  To knowingly and willfully miss Mass IS mortally sinful.  To teach one's children by word or example that Mass is optional is to teach your children how to mortally sin.  This is very serious matter.

3) The sanctity of human sexuality is still upheld.  We view human sexuality as such a profound good that the Church advises against the abuse of human sexuality into a mere plaything.  We have always had problems with the misuse of human sexuality and the devastation it brings.  I know, I know...what about those clerics who sexually preyed on their flocks?  They did so in direct opposition to the teachings of the Church.  The use of artificial birth control was never a 'let your conscience be your guide' type of thing.  That was the mantra of clerics who either bought into worldly views on human sexuality or were too cowardly to uphold those teachings for fear of the backlash that would come.  The Church does not okay the use of porn, masturbation, same sex acting out, or any other use of human sexuality that goes against its very nature. I know this is not popular, but the Church has not changed its teachings about this.  See Catechism sections 2331-2400.

4) Confession is still necessary for the forgiveness of mortal sin.  Sin needs to be forgiven for the relationship with God and with His people to be restored.  It is that relationship that opens us to the freedom of receiving God's grace in the sacraments.  It that relationship that opens us to the Kingdom of Heaven.  Mortal sin severs that relationships.  Without that relationship, we have no true access to the grace of the other sacraments nor to the Kingdom of Heaven.  Whether one feels that is true or not, does not change that this is the constant teaching of the Church.  See Catechism 1446-1470. 

5) The Catholic faith is not a buffet where one picks and chooses what is okay and comfortable.  The Catholic faith has the right to say that this is what we believe.  It has the right to set the standard.  We do so because this is what Christ taught.  End of story.  The point of faith isn't to numb.  The point of faith is to challenge to greater heights, courage, and holiness.  Every rule and teaching of the Church comes from what it means to love God and love our neighbor as ourselves.  It is an integral whole.  Once we start picking and  choosing, we damage the whole.  When people start picking and choosing, it becomes easier and easier to abandon faith altogether.

This is just the tip of the iceberg.  Catholic professionals bemoan the ignorance of the masses and the lack of practice of the masses.  I say that the masses are only doing what we trained them to do!  If we treated faith as a buffet, shocker that others would as well.  If we backed away from unpopular teachings, or teachings that don't jibe with the inferior (political views for example...yeah, I just said that!), or teachings that mean I have to give up my favored sins, then we spread the disease of ignorance that plagues so many.

It isn't as if we haven't had these teachings all along.  All of the things our  spirit of Vatican II types said we threw out (rosary, Confession, purgatory, indulgences, sexual morality teachings, etc) we never did.  These types will have stand before God for the damage they did.

We still believe what we believed long before Vatican II.  Our need to learn is present.  Our need to have clear teaching is also.      

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

A Recipe for Receiving Sacramental Grace

In the readings for the Tuesday of the 30th Week in Ordinary Time, the Gospel is from Luke.  In it, Jesus asks twice, “To what shall I compare the Kingdom of God?”   He first compares it to a mustard seed and then to yeast.
               Back when I ate bread on a regular basis, I baked my own bread.  Most store bread tasted like cardboard to me.  So, I know something of baking good bread.  Jesus mentions throwing yeast in with flour so that it rises.  Truth be told, in bread baking, you need more than mere flour and yeast.  Water must be added. Sometimes other ingredients such as eggs, oil, and such are added.

               I know all analogies fall apart at some time, but allow me to run with this.

               We are told the Kingdom of God is like yeast which transforms the whole of the dough.  The yeast is mixed in with the other ingredients (kneaded).  The grace God gives us is supposed to transform us entirely, not partially.  The Kingdom is not meant to be allowed into certain compartments of our lives, but into the totality of our being and our lives.

               Every sacrament we receive is like this yeast.  God, through His grace, inserts that life of the Kingdom into us.  For it to reach its fruition, several others factors must also be at play; we cannot be perpetually passive receptors of this grace.  As in a loaf of bread, other ingredients need to be in play or the yeast is left dormant or is wasted.

               The flour is our lives; our human bodies and human souls.  It is the context of our lives that this yeast is deposited. We do not give sacraments to animals.  We do not give them to plants.  They don’t need them.  We do.  We need sacraments because, unlike the rest of the created order, we have the ability to freely choose to love.  To properly use this gift (aka “the image and likeness of God”), we must be open to what is happening.  We need the Kingdom inserted within us to help us live as members of the Kingdom.  The sacraments concretize this as signs and symbols we can understand, so that our bodies and souls may be filled with that Kingdom.  Our bodies, though, are not all that is needed. 

               There are two other essential ingredients needed: our minds and our souls.  We are spiritual and rational creatures; the sacraments are not just meant to influence and transform our bodies, but our minds and souls as well.  The yeast isn’t meant to transform part of our lives, but the totality of our lives; every crevice and nook.  Hence, the disposition of our minds and souls matter. 

The Necessary Ingredient of our Mind

               The Catholic faith is not an emotion-based religion; it is a reason-based religion.  Belief matters.  The intellectual premises we hold matter.  For the yeast that is the Kingdom of God to be activated, we must believe that the sacrament is what we say it is.  It is why we do training on any of the sacraments.  It is why we stress you understand what is going on.  Your action in receiving a sacrament must be an act of free will.  Even in the case of infant baptism, the parents must understand and believe what is happening actually happens. Without that belief or act of free will, the sacrament is NOT to be given.  This is why I cannot give a dead person a sacrament.  This is why I cannot force a person to receive a sacrament.  This is why I cannot give any other sacrament to a person if they lack the ability to understand what is happening; it is why we wait till a child has reached the ‘age of reason’ before either Confirmation or the Eucharist are given.  Without the intellectual capacity, a key ingredient to make the dough rise is gone.

               This is why a person must intend what the Church intends in the reception of the sacrament.  For example, if a person entering into a marriage does not intend what the church intends in regard to matters such as fidelity, permanence, having children and such, I cannot allow the marriage to take place.  It invalidates the marriage.  It is why I cannot do an infant baptism if the parents are against it or have no intention of raising their child Catholic.  I could go on, but the point is that our positive mental and reasoned assent is necessary, even if we do not completely understand fully the mysteries we celebrate.  We must be mentally open to the reception of the grace given.  (cf Code of Canon Law 913. 914)

The Necessary Ingredient of our Soul

               Save baptism and confession, our souls must be in a state of grace to receive them properly.  Just as the dispositions of our minds matter in the reception of a sacrament, so too, the disposition of our soul matters.  Having rational souls, our openness spiritually to the reception of a sacrament can fulfill or render defunct the grace given us. To lose the state of grace is to have mortal sin on our soul.  We are given this grace through baptism.  The grace, specifically, is what is called sanctifying grace; a grace by which the void left by original sin is filled by God’s action and enters us into an eternal relationship with God.  When we choose to mortally sin, we cast out this sanctifying grace by our own choice.  Without that sanctifying grace, any sacrament, save Confession, is rendered void by our own choice.  It is in Confession that the sanctifying grace given at Baptism, necessary for sacramental grace to have effect, lost by the willful choice to mortally sin, is restored, again by God’s grace. 

               Without Confession, every act of a sacrament is damaged or destroyed.  It is why we ask a person entering into matrimony, being confirmed, being ordained, being anointed with the Oil of the Infirmed, and receiving Communion to go to confession if they are aware of mortal sin being committed by them.  This is a serious matter.  That sanctifying grace must be present in our souls for the reception of Marriage, Holy Orders, Anointing of the Sick, Confirmation, and Eucharist.  Each of these strengthens the already existent bonds formed by God’s sanctifying grace (cf CCC 1391).  That lack of sanctifying grace excommunicates us from that relationship with God and with His people!  A person in this state should not receive these sacraments until this situation is rectified through sacramental confession (cf Code of Canon Law 915, 916)  So heinous is this, that in reference to the reception of Communion, St Paul reminds us in I Corinthians 11: 27-29, that to receive unworthily is to call upon the wrath of God upon ourselves.  One does not waste God’s grace without consequence, especially the grace given to us through the Sacrifice of the Cross.

               Hence, the necessity of Confession is made plain.  If God does indeed deposit the Kingdom of God in us in each of the sacraments, whether to initiate (Baptism), reinstate (Confession), or strengthen and define (Confirmation, Anointing of the Sick, Eucharist, Matrimony, & Holy Orders) our souls must be open.  To close off our minds through ignorance or our souls through sinfulness is to waste the grace given.  God’s grace isn’t passive or magic; it requires our intentional response.  The yeast needs the other ingredients so as to make bread.

Here’s The Kicker

               I know, this might come as a shock to most Catholics.  In most parishes, sacramental prep is more like jumping through hoops to get a desired merit badge.  We give some effort to the intellectual preparation, but as to the spiritual, we lack.  I believe that the dearth of the devotional life has led to some of this.  I believe the compartmentalizing of our lives into God and Not God sections has led to this.  I believe the almost entirely absent understanding of personal sin (replaced with corporate sin; aka…other people’s sins) has led to this.  Add to this the miniscule confession times, and you would think we are entirely okay with ignorant or sinful reception of the sacraments! You would think we are okay with a minimalist merit badge type of faith life.

               Perhaps, this is why the Church in the west is dying.  Maybe this is why Mass attendance is plummeting.  It’s not that we demand too much, it’s that we have compromised so much away that we have rendered the sacramental life of the Church as irrelevant to our day-to-day lives.  It is why the Kingdom of God is flushed from so much of our lives. 

               As a pastor, I want the grace given in each sacrament to find its mark and transform the soul given it.  It is why I do adult education, make it my business to know what our youth and RCIA candidates are being taught, make it my business to know what series are being used in my school and other educational outlets, and wildly expand the confession times.  It is why I write these long columns.  I, as a pastor, want you to receive that Kingdom of God given you through the sacraments in such a way so as to produce much fruit in your life, your family members’ lives, and in each parishioner’s life! That fruit can transform anything it touches because that fruit is saturated with God’s grace.  As I want to see each and every one of you in heaven, I will continue to teach this.  It makes sense.  It is reasonable.  It might be uncomfortable and challenging; but that is why we need God’s grace.